WASHINGTON—It's only a short hop by plane from the remote Aleutian fishing outpost of King Cove to the World War II-era airfield at Cold Bay, Alaska's third-largest airstrip.
If only the weather would cooperate, which much of the time it doesn't. Eleven people have died on the treacherous air route since 1979.
Local villagers, searching for an overland route, have long been thwarted in their quest for a road—not by the engineering challenges of the peninsula's mountains and wetlands, but because the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge stands in the way.
This week, in what could become the nation's next big environmental showdown, Alaska's congressional delegation will try to break the decades-long impasse with a proposed land swap: adding more than 61,720 acres of protected wildlife habitat in exchange for a seven-mile road easement through a narrow isthmus of the Izembek refuge.
The land swap would provide the first new wilderness area in Alaska in a quarter-century.
"It's a simple solution," said Gary Hennigh, city manager of King Cove, population 807. "The federal government has said it's impossible, and we're just trying to make the impossible possible."
The idea has made some inroads in the Bush administration's Interior Department. But not with national environmental groups that hold sway in the new Democratic Congress.
"Izembek has the most valuable wetlands in Alaska, if not in the United States," said Alaska environmentalist Deborah Williams, who jousted over a road proposal with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a decade ago when she worked in the Clinton administration. "It would be a biological travesty to build a road there."
But that's exactly what the state of Alaska intends to do, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local governments such as the Aleutians East Borough and the city of King Cove.
Congress, which designated the wilderness in 1980, must sign off first. The debate is expected to kick off later this week when Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduces a bill authorizing a land trade between the federal government and the state of Alaska and the King Cove native corporation, one of more than a dozen groups that represent the business interests of Native Alaskans.
In a letter to the state's congressional delegation in February, Gov. Sarah Palin called the road "a long-needed, safe, dependable and economic access for residents."
But to build it, the state would have to carve 206 acres out of the Izembek refuge for a 100-foot-wide easement. As planned, it would be a single-lane gravel road with a cable barrier on each side that would prohibit off-road vehicles.
Backers know the plan is controversial, but they say it's a matter of life and death.
"This is what we've been fighting for for 30 years, to be able to go from King Cove to Cold Bay safely, with peace of mind, to travel like any other U.S. resident is able to do," said Della Trumble, president of the King Cove native corporation.
As it is, Cold Bay, some 25 miles away, can be reached only by air or sea. The problem, as visitors have noted since time immemorial, is the weather.
Joann Veniaminov, a 19th-century Russian missionary in the Aleutian Islands, called it "the empire of the winds."
Gale-force winds and fog are facts of life amid the volcanic peaks around King Cove's small airstrip. Scheduled flights in and out of town occur only 60 percent to 70 percent of the time, locals say.
Most of the fatal air crashes have involved medical evacuations in bad weather, such as a 1980 tragedy that took the lives of an injured crabber and three rescuers.
"Having to risk your life to save another, nobody should be put in that position," said Steven Silver, a D.C. attorney working with the Aleutians East Borough.
In soupy weather, the hours-long sea route to Cold Bay is no picnic, either. Trumble recalls a sister-in-law who went into premature labor and had a baby on board a boat to Cold Bay. The mother's IV cords got tangled up while she was being lifted to the dock.
But there are other interests at stake besides health and safety. The road would clearly enhance King Cove's fishing industry, the community's economic lifeblood.
"It would provide access to a world-class airport," said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack, a lifelong subsistence and commercial fisherman.
Balanced against all this is a pristine wilderness of caribou, bear, fox and a host of migratory waterfowl. The proposed road would skirt between the Kinzarof and Izembek lagoons, a resting and feeding area for virtually the entire population of Pacific black brant, Taverner's Canada goose and emperor goose.
Environmentalists say the critical area around the lagoons is non-negotiable, no matter how much more land Alaska turns into wilderness.
"It doesn't take away the fact that this is the heart of the refuge," said Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Wilderness Society's associate regional director in Alaska.
Critics of the land swap also question whether it's a solution to King Cove's health and safety concerns, given the danger of avalanches and other winter driving hazards on a remote wilderness road.
The solution, they say, was forged in 1998, when Congress provided $37.5 million for improvements to the King Cove medical clinic and a road to the border of the Izembek refuge, where hovercraft service to Cold Bay is getting under way.
But King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss worries that the remote peninsular area can't financially support a hovercraft over the long term. Attracting good doctors is also a problem.
But as they confront environmentally conscious Democrats in Congress, King Cove's would-be road builders will likely rely heavily on the indigenous-rights argument provided by Trumble and other native representatives.
"We've had access to this area for thousands of years," she said. "If we had been consulted, this would not have been an issue."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.